The Torah portion of Vayishlach opens with Jacob sending messengers (angels) to his brother, Esau. Part of the message they were to tell Esau was, "I sojourned (garti) with Laban."1 Rashi2 gives two explanations on the word "garti." First, that it is related to the word ger, which means stranger, because the whole time he lived with Laban, he was like a stranger. Second, that Jacob was hinting to Esau that during his sojourn with Laban, he kept the 613 mitzvot, as the numerical value of the word garti is 613.

What is the connection between the homiletical explanation, that Jacob kept the 613 mitzvot, with the simple meaning of the verse, that he sojourned as a stranger with Laban? Also, why was it important for Jacob to let Esau know that he kept the 613 mitzvot? And finally, what lesson are we meant to learn from this?

Jacob's descent to Charan, where he lived with Laban, is the descent of the soul into the world.

Jacob's descent to Charan, where he lived with Laban, is the descent of the soul into the world. On a broader perspective, this is also the descent of the Jewish people into exile. Your soul descends to accomplish a mission, to refine your body and the world around you into a dwelling place for G‑d. When you do this, you have completed your part of the mission. When we complete our missions collectively, G‑d will dwell openly in this world, resulting in Moshiach’s immediate arrival.

Jacob is teaching us the correct approach in order to succeed in our mission on this earth.

Rashi's first explanation is that garti comes from ger, a stranger. When you are home, everything has to be just right, but when you are traveling, things don't have to be perfect. You make due with what is available.3

Laban and Esau symbolize physical needs, wants, and pleasures. The question is, are you at home with Laban? Are your physical desires most important? Or, are you a stranger traveling through Laban's place, recognizing that the spiritual is most important?

In saying that he was a stranger passing through while with Laban, Jacob was saying that the physical was not of the utmost importance to him. That is why he was successful in his mission.

To prove that he was successful, Jacob continues, "I acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep..."4 At first glance, this seems to contradict what was said before, that the physical was not important to Jacob. Was it important or not?

There are different approaches you can have to the world.

One approach is that the physical is all that is important, and success is measured by how many physical possessions you acquire. This is the approach of Laban and Esau. A second approach is that only the spiritual is important. In this approach, all physicality is shunned.

Then there is Jacob's approach. When you make the spiritual most important, yet you recognize that everything in the world has a spiritual purpose. The physical isn't bad at all; it just needs to be harnessed and used for its G‑dly purpose. When it is just physical, it is negative, but when it is viewed through spiritual lenses, it is positive.

This will help us understand a cryptic passage in the Midrash. On the verse, "I acquired cattle, donkeys, sheep," the Midrash5 says that the word "donkey" refers to King Moshiach, who is described as "a pauper, riding on a donkey." How does this fit in Jacob’s message of spiritual physicality?6

Jacob was saying that he did his part to bring Moshiach. In order for Moshiach to come, we have to make this world into a dwelling place for G‑d. We must take ownership of it and refine it. This is done through Torah and mitzvot, and by using our possessions to serve G‑d. Conveying that he kept the 613 mitzvot, Jacob was saying that he did this work.

From this perspective, the more you acquire during your mission, the more of the physical world you refine, the more successful you are. And that is what Jacob is telling Esau: "See how much I accomplished, I have acquired the spiritual essence of all these things, now they are realizing their G‑dly purpose. I have done my part to bring Moshiach."

By sending these messages, Jacob was hinting to Esau that "I have completed my mission despite all the difficulties of living in exile, with Laban. Did you do the same?"

The angels returned to Jacob with the answer, “We came to your brother, to Esau."7 You were hoping that he would be like a brother, that he would be the same as you, but he is still Esau.8 He still only sees the physical world as important, and he has not done his part.

The lesson here is for everyone, everywhere. A Jew must do his best to refine himself and his part of the world, making it into a home for G‑d, and readying it for the redemption. This is true even if the world around you doesn't seem to be going in the same direction, and others don't seem to be doing their part. Perhaps they are even acting as a Laban or an Esau. Don't think that it is a waste. Instead, realize that you are bringing the redemption closer. We view the world is holding in balance; perhaps it is your effort that will tip the scales and usher in the redemption.

This is how powerful the effort of a single individual can effect.

This is how powerful the effort of a single individual can effect.

The key to accomplishing your part is by making the spiritual the most important, and allowing the physical to follow, using it for its G‑dly purpose.9

May our efforts to make this world into a home for G‑d succeed, and usher in the coming of Moshiach. May it happen soon. The time has come.

This Dvar Torah is Dedicated by Mendy and Ita Klein in honor of Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz, for the continued inspiration you provide for us all.